Song Zhiwen – On the Road During the Cold Food Festival

Song Zhiwen (宋之問, 송지문, 656-712) was a Tang dynasty (唐, 당, 618-907) bureaucratic official and a renowned poet. He was born in Fenyang (, 분양) in Shanxi Province (山西省, 산서성) and his courtesy name (字, 자) was Yanqing (淸, 연청). 

Song Zhiwen’s personality was widely reviled, perhaps because of his associations with other reviled figures. In 675, at the young age of 19, he passed the imperial civil examinations (科擧, 과거). Soon thereafter, Song Zhiwen caught the attention of Empress Consort Wu Zetian (則天武后, 즉천무후, 624-705, r. 690-705). On numerous occasions, he attempted to flatter the Empress Consort, going as far as offering her a chamber pot as a gift. The Empress Consort nonetheless did award Song Zhiwen with the bureaucratic positions of Practitioner of the Arts (習藝館, 습예관) and Proctor of Civil Affairs (尚文監丞, 상문감승). Song Zhiwen also tried to blandish Zhang Yizhi (張易之, 장역지, ?-705), one of Empress Consort’s close ministers and lover (佞臣, 영신). For this behavior, he was banished to the countryside. After he returned to the capital, Song Zhiwen again tried to flatter Wu Sansi (武思, 무삼사, ?-707), the Empress Consort’s nephew and a high-ranking minister, and was awarded a bureaucratic position. During the short reign of Tang Emperor Zhongzong (唐中宗, 당 중종, 656-710, r. 684), he fell in favor with the Emperor for his talents and was awarded the positions of Auxiliary Academician (直士, 직학사) and Institute for the Refinement of Letters (修館, 수문관). There was also one incident where he fell very drunk at a feast, and was rude even to the Emperor. Song Zhiwen also tried to woo Princess Taiping (太平公主, 태평공주, 665-713), one of the daughters of Empress Consort Wu. Sometime after, however, he seems to have fallen out of favor in the imperial court. When Tang Emperor Ruizong (唐睿宗, 당 예종, 662-716, r. 710-712) came to power, he banished Song Zhiwen to Qinzhou (欽州, 흠주). Shortly after Tang Emperor Xuanzong’s (唐玄宗, 당 현종, 686-762, r. 712-756) ascendancy to the throne, the Emperor accused Song Zhiwen of being a follower of Zhang Yizhi and sentenced him to death by suicide with poison (賜死, 사사).

Despite his despicable personality, Song Zhiwen was renowned for his poetry. In particular, he excelled at pentasyllabic regulated poems (五言律詩, 오언율시) so much that they were called Shen-Song Poetic Form (沈宋體, 심송체), named also after his contemporary Shen Quanqi (沈佺期, 심전기, 656-714). Below is one of his pentasyllabic regulated poems, which he wrote on his It alludes to the Cold Food Festival (寒食, 한식). The festival falls 105 days after the Winter Solstice, falling either on April 5 or 6 on the Gregorian Calendar. As the name insinuates, traditional customs on this festival include abstinence from cooked meals and consumption of raw food. Other customs include sowing seeds in rice paddies. Traditional customs in Korea are similar, although the Festival is not much celebrated in modern times.  

途中寒食 도중한식
題黃梅臨江驛寄崔融 제황매림강역기최융

On the Road During the Cold Food Festival,
Inscribed on the Post Station at Huangmei (黃梅, 황매), Also Known as Linjiang (臨江, 임강), and Sent to Cui Rong (崔融, 최융, 635-706)

馬上逢寒食 마상봉한식  Atop of my horse, I meet the Cold Food Festival;
途中屬暮春 도중속모춘  On the road, I am subject to the late spring.
可憐江浦望 가련강포망  O what a pity! As a I gaze at the riverside’s piers,
不見洛橋人 불견락교인  I do not see anyone from the bridge of Luoyang (洛陽, 낙양).
北極懷明主 북극회명주  The North Star embraces our illustrious king;
南溟作逐臣 남명작축신  The Southern Seas harbor the chased out ministers.
故園腸斷處 고원장단처  My home village, where my intestines were pierced,
日夜柳條新 일야류조신  In one night, the willow trees’ branches become anew.

Definitions:

Horse • above • to meet • cold • food
Roads • amid • to belong to • late • spring
Can • pity • river • bank • to gaze
Not • to see • geographical name • geographical name • people
North • extreme • to embrace • bright • lord
South • sea • to make • to be chased out • minister
Old • garden • intestines • to piece • place
One day • night • willow tree • branch • anew

Notes:

  • Pentasyllabic regulated poem (五言律詩, 오언율시). Riming character (韻, 운) is 眞(진).
  • 臨江(임강) – Old name for Hangzhou (杭州, 항주).
  • 崔融(최융) – Tang dynasty poet, contemporary of Song Zhiwen.
  • 腸斷(장단) – Literally “to pierce the innards.” Refers to being heartbroken.
  • Korean translation available here.
5 comments
  1. Alice Cheang said:

    Hello, Kuiwon and everybody! I think 題 should be read as “to inscribe.” (For example, there is a whole sub-genre of 題畫詩 or “poems inscribed on paintings” that became very popular in the Song dynasty). In that case, 題黃梅臨江驛寄崔融 should be “Written [on the wall] at the post station at Huangmei [old name], also known as Linjiang [name in Tang times], and sent to Cui Rong.” Poets liked to leave their poems at places they stopped at on the way to some official destination, especially when that destination was somewhere they were reluctant to go, but many would have kept a copy. Song Zhiwen, en route to exile in Guangdong Province, would definitely have wanted to keep a copy (perhaps he sent it to Cui Rong in hopes that the latter would circulate it for him), because the main purpose of writing this poem was to show his unwavering loyalty to the court and, hopefully, pave the way to an early recall. We know this from the second of the two middle couplets: 北極懷明主 / 南溟作逐臣 “Even though I will be serving as an exiled minister in the remotest reaches of the southern ocean, / I will never cease to long for my illustrious lord in the far north” (北極、南溟 are of course hyperbolic).

    I found, quite by chance, a website with a complete translation of this poem into English and modern Chinese. It’s not completely accurate, but some of the lines may be helpful. See http://www.asiawind.com/bb/viewtopic.php?f=10&t=491

    By the way, I wonder how much of a villain Song Zhiwen was in real life. I mean, he may have been a bad guy, but the mere fact that he accepted office under the reprobate Empress Wu (instead of nobly refusing to serve) would have made him a bad guy in the eyes of the dynastic historians regardless.

    • 歸源 said:

      Thank you for your very insightful comments. It puts the poem in context. I have incorporated your suggestions. One of the downsides of getting Classical Chinese poems from the Korean blogosphere is that the depth of their commentary can vary widely. For this one, there was very little.

      As for how he was in real life, I was starting to think the same. Maybe he was vilified for his connections.

  2. setohj said:

    ~ 屬 = (zhǔ) to fix one’s attention on / to concentrate on
    There is a time contradiction in your English translation of the first couplet. Because the Cold Food Festival is in early spring, it comes before Late Spring. The narrator (“I”) cannot meet the Cold Food Festival and be subject to Late Spring at the same time. I would translate 途中屬暮春 as: “On the road, I think of late spring.”

    ~ 主 = lord

    ~ 腸斷 = very grieved; or if intestines metaphor is kept, then I would use “intestines ruptured.” The word “pierced” suggest a sharp object like a dagger is used.

    ~ 日夜 = day and night

    Thanks for another fine posting by Kuiwon and commentary by Alice.

  3. riroriro said:

    _ 屬 may also mean ” meet” ; the first two verses descrbe a wandering life
    _ 4th line : ( watching ) north star , remembering the king ( 明 主 = two-word expression meaning ” enlightened ruler “)
    _ 5th line : ( by ) south sea , ( I live as or do as ) a hounded / banished official
    Ancient poets favor terseness and concise , short verses . I think the translations should follow that line
    _ 腸斷 = two -word expression meaning gut-wrenching pain
    _ 7th line😦 thinking of ) old garden , ( causes ) awful pain

    • Alice Cheang said:

      I think 豊臣 is right in taking 屬 as “to meet,” making it synonymous with 逢. I also agree with his interpretation of Line 4.

      Re setohj’s comment on 暮春:寒食 falls close to the end of the second month of the lunar year (一月:孟春、二月:仲春、三月:季春), so it’s close to late spring. May we think of the poet as saying that he is “coming up on” late spring? Also, as Song Zhiwen was traveling into the deep south, the weather would have been getting warmer and warmer, and for someone used to the colder climate of 中原, it would certainly have felt like late spring.

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